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Emergency worker union membership will not be mandatory after Supreme Court ruling

Joe Ross
Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0
Emergency workers were exempt from Michigan's right-to-work policy that outlawed mandatory union membership. After the Supreme Court's decision this week, that exemption is gone.

Michigan's police and firefighter unions will no longer be mandatory for employees to join after the United States Supreme Court decided Wednesday that the practice was unconstitutional.

A “right-to-work” law in the state already established that Michigan unions couldn't require membership. But when Michigan first passed the law in 2012, emergency worker unions were exempt from the policy to prevent disruptions in public safety departments.

Under that exemption, police and firefighters could choose to not affiliate with the unions, but they would still have to pay service fees to cover the cost of the union services they benefitted from.

The Supreme Court’s decision means people will no longer have to pay this fee, meaning unions across the country are now worried some employees will benefit from their work without paying for it.

Frank Guido, the attorney for the Police Officer's Association of Michigan, says he’s upset by the decision, even though he thinks the POAM is popular enough among police officers to withstand the blow.

“The perception is that this was a motivated decision to gut labor unions. And that's unfortunate but… it's what we have right now,” Guido says.

According to Guido, 100 percent of the POAM are currently dues paying members, despite their ability to opt out and only pay service fees.

Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, says this belief in the union holds true among fire fighters, too.

“We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of firefighters and we stand together,” Docherty says. “Our group really truly believes in the union and understands that it is the right thing to do to protect their interests and their families’ interests.”

Among politicians, response to the decision fell along party lines. Democrats saw it as a weakening of worker’s rights, while Republicans felt it was a victory for the individual.

Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, who is running for Attorney General with the Republican party, did not respond to an interview request from Michigan Radio. However, he issued a statement in support of the Supreme Court’s decision.

“No one should ever be forced to join a political group against their will. Our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association are bedrock American values, and I am thankful the Supreme Court today upheld those rights for hard-working Americans nationwide.”

Guido says employees who opt out of the union will still not be allowed to bargain for increased wages or benefits on their own, and thus will still have to pay directly for services they receive from the union. He thinks that could end up being more expensive for people.

“We want to see everybody stay together and be as unified as we have been in the past,” he says. “And I think our membership will. We provide a good service, and if you do that, hopefully this decision won't have that big of a negative impact.”

Maya Goldman is a newsroom intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a student at the University of Michigan, where she studies anthropology and writing. During the school year, Maya also works as a senior news editor and podcast producer for The Michigan Daily.
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